Technical Services Style Guide

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1. Introduction
2. Preparing to Process
3. Arranging
4. Describing
5. Housing and Preserving
6. Finishing the Job

Back to How to Proceed Table of Contents


Saying It

Good writing and editing: Deathless prose is not required; good concise standard English is required. Be prepared to have your finding aid edited by those who have been writing these things for a long time. Sometimes editing corrects errors; sometimes it clarifies description. Often editing serves to add words or phrases that appear in finding aids describing materials similar to those in your collection. Editors add these words or phrases to facilitate searching across finding aids.

Timeliness of description: It’s tempting to say things like “Fluffy now lives in Cary, N.C., where she teaches obedience classes.” Although additions or other circumstances will cause some finding aids to be revised in future, many finding aids will represent their collections for years and years. If your description includes statements that talk about what someone’s doing now or where that someone currently lives or how many books she’s written, you risk your description becoming quickly outdated. You can get around this by making the description more oblique and therefore more able to endure the test of time. Some examples are:

  • In 2001, Fluffy moved to Cary, N.C., where she taught obedience classes.
  • As of 1969, she had written 18 novels about cane toads in Australia.
  • The Hamptons had 24 children, 16 dogs, and 44 goldfish in 2001.

Lest ye be judged: You may think that the person you’re working on was the cat’s meow. Please remember, however, that you’re writing description, not evaluation or appreciation (that’s for the other side of the desk). Keep the judgment out of your words and your tone. Just the facts, please.

Consistency: Please try to be consistent in what you call people, places, things. If she's Mary Virginia del Rio, please don't call her Mary Va. del Rio. Ever. Think searchability.

Verb tenses: Use the present tense when referring to the papers themselves. Use the past tense when referring to actions of the creators or recipients of the papers.

  • There are three letters from John to Mary.
  • In a letter of 3 June 1870, Amos described his trip to High Point, N.C.

Say it and say it again: We don't expect people to read our finding aids from beginning to end. This is especially true of EAD-encoded finding aids, which are designed to help researchers navigate directly to descriptions of the materials of interest. Therefore, do not hesitate to repeat important information (e.g., complete names, full titles of writings, when an event took place) wherever needed. This can get tricky. Ask for help if you are unsure about how much information to add at particular points.

BUT verbosity is discouraged: You’re writing description, not deathless prose. Keep it simple both in sentence structure and vocabulary choice. Again, remember that researchers don't typically read through the whole finding aid beginning to end, but seek out the parts that hold particular interest for them.

Archives speak: Learn to speak like an archivist. Here are some handy phrases.

  • ... appears to have been ...
  • ... may have been located ...
  • ... was possibly related to ...
  • The relation between these materials and other materials in the collection is unclear.

Abstracts and Collection Overviews for Multi-Series Collections

A good way to write a collection overview and the scope and content and biographical/historical abstracts: This is not the only way to write good collection overviews and abstracts, but it usually works pretty well. You may want to ask for guidance on how to do this the first time you give it a try. And see below for what to do when there's only one series.

  • Copy all your series descriptions into the collection overview area of the finding aid.
  • Edit the descriptions, retaining only the truly significant content (always a judgment call), to create the a collection overview. You may content tag the collection overview or leave it for the cataloger.
  • Copy the collection overview into the scope and content abstract area (<abstract encodinganalog="520">). Omit all internal tagging except <title> and <emph>.
  • Edit the scope and content abstract so that it's as concise as possible.
  • Stick a bit of biographical/historical information into the biographical/historical abstract (<abstract label="Abstract" encodinganalog="545">). Include enough to identify your creator(s) clearly, but you probably won't duplicate your entire biographical/historical note (unless it's an extremely bare bones biographical/historical note).
  • Review both abstracts to make sure that the necessary access points (online catalog headings) can be grounded in one or the other of them.

Abstracts and Collection Overviews for One-Series Collections

If you use the method above to write abstracts and collection overviews when there's just one series, you wind up with pretty much the same description three times in the finding aid (once in the series description, once in the collection overview, and once in the <abstract encodinganalog="520">. This is overkill. If you have only one series, write its description as the collection overview. Use the collection overview as the <abstract encodinganalog="520"> (with editing as needed). At the series level, you may either omit the <scopecontent> note entirely or use it for information that's not appropriate for the collection overview or abstract.

<bioghist> v. <scopecontent>

<bioghist> is about the creator(s) of the materials. <scopecontent> is about the materials in the collection. It’s sometimes difficult to separate what goes in one from what goes in the other. Try for as little overlap as possible. For example, if you’re working on the papers of a creator who was involved in a particular project and the resulting materials are what’s in the collection, talk about the creator’s background in <bioghist>. You can also mention that the creator undertook the project at hand. But save the details of the project for <scopecontent>. Here’s a short example:

☺ <bioghist>
<head>Biographical Note</head>
<p>Alma Ravenal was born in rural Georgia in 1831. Until the age of 25, she worked part-time 
as a missionary in China. After her return to the United States, she became a 
trapeze artist, traveling with various small circuses. During this period, she was involved 
in a project to memorialize great trapeze artists who were also missionaries. Ravenal 
died in 1876 as a result of a fall during a performance in DosiWallops, Wash.</p>

<head>Collection Overview</head>
<p>The collection includes materials, 1870-1876, relating to missionary and trapeze 
artist Alma Ravenal’s efforts to document the history of trapeze artists who were also 
missionaries. Correspondence, 1870-1876, is chiefly between Ravenal and friends and 
family members trying to convince her to give up her pursuit. Financial records 
document expenditures for bail and other expenses Ravenal incurred as she became 
increasingly vehement in her pursuit. Photographs are largely etc., etc.</p>

Folder Titles

Folder titles: Folder titles come in many shapes and sizes. In general: Do not end folder titles with a period.

  • Steele, Danielle

Use colons to show subordination. Capitalize first word after colon.

  • Missionary Society: Committee on Part-time Missionaries
  • 1901: January-March
  • 1901: Undated

Always use commas before dates:

  • Missionary Society: Minutes, 1901-1903
  • Correspondence, 1901-1902
  • Speeches, 1901-1902

Use commas before locations:

  • Missionary Society: Annual meeting, Raleigh, 1902

Use colons in complex statements:

  • <title render="doublequote">How the West Was Won</title>: Missionary Society, Raleigh, 1966

You may want to use the subordination model cited above when you want to list genre and dates for some folders and genre with modifying information for other folders. For example, a series may contain correspondence, 1901-1956; speeches for which you have both titles and dates; and miscellaneous other items. Remembering that you use a simple comma before locations and before dates, the folder list would look like this:

  • Correspondence, 1901-1902
  • Correspondence, 1903-1956
  • Speech: <title render="doublequote">How I Spent My Summer Vacation</title>, Raleigh, 1922
  • Speech: <title render="doublequote">How the West Was Won</title>: Civitan Club, Chapel Hill, 1960
  • Miscellaneous

Use the Last name, First name format.

  • Godwin, Gail

Creator-generated folder titles: We usually use creator-generated folder titles when we want to make a quick and dirty folder list. Add this statement (or something close) just before the folder list begins when you are using folder titles as received:

  • Note that original file folder titles have, for the most part, been retained.

HOWEVER, take that statement with a grain of salt: Make the list as intelligible as you can without fretting over the contents of each folder. You may have to spell out abbreviations or take a quick look to see what some weird combination of letters and numbers means.

The creator may have been creative with names, punctuation, date style, etc., but you must strive for consistency. Making the creator's folder titles conform to our style is usually just a question of re-ordering the words. Do not hesitate to do this. It's okay to list names in first name, last name order or last name, first name order, but you should pick one and do it consistently throughout the listing.

Folder list order: Folder order should have some kind of logic. Alphabetical or chronological order should be easily discerned. Any other order should make sense in terms of the papers. You are under no obligation to include an <arrangement> statement for each series or subseries. If there is no discernible order (especially in short folder lists), leave the <arrangement> statement out.

Alphabetical by name means last name, first name.

  • Polk, Leonidas LaFayette

Company names that include a person’s name are alphabetized by the first letter of the first word in the name.

  • J. M. Dent and Sons

Names: Personal and Corporate

Consistency: Try to be consistent in how you write names. It is often best to use the fullest version of the name first in each section of your EAD finding aid (e.g., abstracts, biographical/historical note, collection overview, c01 series descriptions). In subsequent references within each section, you may use either the last name alone (unless this makes for unclear references) or the most-used combination of given and surname. If the appropriate name is Hetty Betty Bodine, you may refer to her as Bodine or Hetty Betty Bodine or perhaps Hetty Bodine or Hetty. Do not, however, arbitrarily start calling her Hetty B. Bodine or H. Betty Bodine or Betty (unless she went by Betty, in which case, use that name consistently).

Initials: Always add a space between initials in names with multiple initials:

  • R.•P. Holdzkom
  • J.•D. Sallinger

Abbreviations: Usually spell out names of corporate bodies. There can be exceptions, but this will be determined on a case-by-case basis, often according to whether or not there is an authority record for a name. For example, use and instead of & unless you know that the authority record specifies & (remember to use & for & in EAD-encoded finding aids).

  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Smith and Company

Names: Places

Abbreviations: Always use the approved Library of Congress state abbreviations when the state is a modifier. Note that these are NOT the 2-letter standard United States Post Office abbreviations. Note also that there is no space between N. and C. (N.C.) or S. and C. (S.C.) or W. and Va. (W.Va.).

  • Chapel Hill, N.C.
  • Little Rock, Ark.

Alabama: Ala., Alaska: Alaska, Arizona: Ariz., Arkansas: Ark., California: Calif., Colorado: Colo., Connecticut: Conn., Delaware: Del., District of Columbia: D.C., Florida: Fla., Georgia: Ga., Hawaii: Hawaii, Idaho: Idaho, Illinois: Ill., Indiana: Ind., Iowa: Iowa, Kansas: Kans., Kentucky: Ky., Louisiana: La., Maine: Me., Maryland: Md., Massachusetts: Mass., Michigan: Mich., Minnesota: Minn., Mississippi: Miss., Missouri: Mo., Montana: Mont., Nebraska: Neb., Nevada: Nev., New Hampshire: N.H., New Jersey: N.J., New Mexico: N.M, New York: N.Y., North Carolina: N.C., North Dakota: N.D., Ohio: Ohio, Oklahoma: Okla., Oregon: Or., Pennsylvania: Pa., Puerto Rico: P.R., Rhode Island: R.I., South Carolina: S.C., South Dakota: S.D., Tennessee: Tenn., Texas: Tex., Utah: Utah, Vermont: Vt., Virginia: Va., Virgin Islands: V.I., Washington: Wash., West Virginia: W.Va., Wisconsin: Wis., Wyoming: Wyo.

Places as part of name: Always spell out state names when they are part of a name. This also goes for United States.

  • North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research
  • West Virginia Prison for Women
  • United States Senate.

Stand-alones: Always spell out state names when they stand alone. This also goes for United States.

  • She is a native of North Carolina.
  • They came to the United States in 1856.


Use <title> tags to add italics or quotation marks to formal titles; use <emph> tags to add bold, italic, or quotation marks in all other cases.

Italics: Use italics for published books, pamphlets; proceedings, collections of materials (e.g., short story collections, poetry collections), long poems, periodicals, and newspapers (including newspaper sections published separately). Also use italics for motion pictures; major musical works (e.g., operas, symphonies), paintings, drawings, statues, and other works of art. Make sure the </title> tag comes before any ending punctuation.

  • In his <title render="italic">Dictionary of North Carolina Biography</title>, Powell ...*☺ Her column appeared in the <title render="italic">Charlotte News</title>, 1942-1953.
  • He wrote for the <title render="italic">New York Times Book Review</title> regularly between 1966 and 1970.
  • His poetry collection, <title render="italic">Call of the Wildest</title> (Oxford, 1951), won the North Carolina Weird Poetry Society award in 1952.
  • He wrote extensively about seeing a production of <title render="italic">The Emperor Jones</title> in 1939.

Quotation marks: Use quotation marks for theses, dissertations, short stories, short poems, chapters, journal and newspaper articles, columns, and all unpublished works regardless of length. Make sure the </title> tag comes before or after punctuation as appropriate.

  • His novel, <title render="doublequote">Wilder West,</title> was never published.
  • Her column, <title render="doublequote">Little Moi,</title> appeared in the <title render="italic">Chapel Hill Messenger</title>, 1909-1910.
  • His poem, <title render="doublequote">Now There Are None</title> won the Minor Poets of Portland award in 1902.

<title> v. <emph>

<title> and <emph> result in the same outputs to the screen, but they're not the same intellectually. <title> is for titles, italic or quoted; <emph> supplies italic or quotation marks in all other cases. Most of the time, you'll have a title. Examples of correct <emph> usage include:

  • The letter indicates that she was <emph render="doublequote">goosed</emph> by the soldier.
  • In the letter from Gettysburg, Penn., dated 3 July 1863, he wrote, <emph render="doublequote">What the <emph render="italic">HELL</emph> am I doing here?</emph>
  • Her name was McGill, and she called herself <emph render="doublequote">Lil,</emph> but everyone knew her as <emph render="doublequote">Nancy.</emph>

Commas, Other Punctuation, Capitalization

Introductory phrases and clauses: Use a comma to set off all introductory phrases and clauses.

  • In December 1980, she totally freaked out.
  • By the following summer, she was the CEO for a leading corporation.

Terms in series: In a series of three or more terms, use a comma after each term.

  • She traveled to Raleigh, Atlanta, and Memphis.

Names as modifiers: With appositives involving names, add a comma when the full name is used. Leave the comma out when only part of a name is used.

  • His wife, Mary Johnson Smith, ran away in 1806.
  • His daughter Sue was a famous stripper.

Other modifiers: Use commas before and after location names used as modifiers but not before and after Jr./Sr.

  • Goodman moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in August 1900.
  • Ken Griffey Jr. never attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Quotation marks: Commas and periods go inside quotes, while colons and semi-colons go outside quotes. Check this carefully when doing EAD markup.

  • She called herself <emph render="doublequote">Flo,</emph> but everyone knew her as Nancy.
  • Included is the 1922 version of his unsold novel, <title render="doublequote">When Bad Things Happen to Bad People</title>; his unsold short story, <title render="doublequote">Worser and Worser</title>; and his unsold anthology, <title render="doublequote">Major Works.</title>

Capitalization of job titles: Don't capitalize job titles unless they are used as an identifier before a name.

  • She was director of the Sports Information office.
  • Robert Wagner, mayor of New York City, was there.
  • Mayor Robert Wagner of New York City was there.


General: Dates style is as follow. No commas, please.

  • 23 April 1876
  • April 1876

Centuries: Use arabic numerals for centuries. Include a hyphen if the century is used as an adjective.

  • 19th century
  • 20th century
  • 10th century
  • 18th-century politics

Date spans: Never use a from without a to.

  • X She was fire chief from 1906-1920.
  • She was fire chief from 1906 to 1920.
  • She was fire chief, 1906-1920.


Use numerals for centuries.

  • ☺ She was the first woman to win the prize in the 20th century.

Use numerals for troop numbers.

  • ☺ He served with the 1st North Carolina Volunteers.

Spell out numbers 1-12 when they appear singly in text. Use numerals when they represent a numerical span.

  • ☺ She is known to have eaten twelve blueberry pies at the 1907 state fair.
  • ☺ Spell out numbers 1-12 when they appear singly in text.

Spell out numbers when they appear at the beginning of sentences (or reconstruct the sentence so that the number does not come first).

  • ☺ One hundred years later, he was still eating blueberry pie.


One space rules: Always use ONE space after punctuation (periods, colons, whatever). In an EAD finding aid, there is never a time that you need more than one space in a row.

  • X Smith gave birth to sextuplets in 1983.••They were called:••Manny, Moe, Jack, Eloise, Heloise, and Fran.••In 1984, Smith joined the Foreign Legion.
  • Smith gave birth to sextuplets in 1983.•They were called:•Manny, Moe, Jack, Eloise, Heloise, and Fran.•In 1984, Smith joined the Foreign Legion.

Dashes: Dashes should not be surrounded by spaces:

  • X 1983•-•1984
  • 1983-1984

Extra spaces in and around EAD tags: Extra spaces in and around tags are sometimes hard to see, but you must train yourself to be vigilant. These extra spaces show up in the beginning or middle of statements when the document is displayed in xml or html, resulting in too much space between words or causing misalignment of lists (e.g., online catalog terms, folder number lists, folder titles). Extra spaces at the ends of statements do not show up, but are discouraged.

  • X <bioghist><head>Biographical Note</head>

    •Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874), the original Siamese twins, were born in Meklong, Siam.••

  • <bioghist><head>Biographical Note</head>

    Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874), the original Siamese twins, were born in Meklong, Siam.

  • X <unittitle>•<unitdate>1922</unitdate></unittitle>
  • <unittitle><unitdate>1922</unitdate></unittitle>
  • X <c02><did><container type="folder">•1</container><unittitle>Correspondence, <unitdate type="inclusive">1920-1939</unitdate></unittitle></did></c02>
  • X <c02><did><container type="folder">1</container><unittitle>•Correspondence, <unitdate type="inclusive">1920-1939</unitdate></unittitle></did></c02>
  • <c02><did><container type="folder">1</container><unittitle>Correspondence, <unitdate type="inclusive">1920-1939</unitdate></unittitle></did></c02>

Non-breaking spaces: When you have a close angle bracket (>), a space, and then an open angle bracket (<), the space is dropped by browsers. So:

  • X She consulted <subject>archivist</subject> <persname>Nancy Kaiser</persname>.

looks like this:

  • X She consulted archivistNancy Kaiser.

To retain that space between the angle brackets, use a non-breaking space. You'll find it at the bottom of the sidebar. When you double click on Non-breaking space,   is added to your document:

  • She consulted <subject>archivist</subject> <persname>Nancy Kaiser</persname>.

In browsers, this will look like this:

  • She consulted archivist Nancy Kaiser.


Chair and chairman: If we agree to use chair for both males and females, we cannot go wrong.

Correspondence: Correspondence means an exchange of letters. If we say, Also included is correspondence between Amos Trevellyan and his daughter Alma, we mean that there are letters from Amos to Alma as AND letters from Alma to Amos. Do not use correspondence when there are letters going only one way. If the collection includes chiefly incoming letters and only a few outgoing letters, which may or may not be paired together, correspondence is still the correct term.

  • X Included is correspondence Rankin received from supporters.
  • ☺ Included are letters Rankin received from supporters.

Copies: Be precise and clear when referring to copies as opposed to original items. Acceptable terms include typed transcriptions, carbon copies, photocopies, photocopies of typed transcriptions, and handwritten copies. Avoid vague terms (e.g., copies).

Things southern: It's the South, not the south. BUT it is southern and southerner, not Southern and Southerner.

  • X He was from the south.
  • ☺ He was from the South.
  • X We traveled South on the highway.
  • ☺ We traveled south on the highway.
  • X The tea had a very Southern taste.
  • ☺ The tea had a very southern taste.
  • X He was a Southerner.
  • ☺ He was a southerner.

University of North Carolina: Our institution is currently the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It has been so since 1963. Any materials relating to this institution through 1962 are from the University of North Carolina. For the earlier period, you can also say University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill or University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill if you like. Use the appropriate full form of the name the first time it is mentioned in each section (Collection Overview, series/subseries scope and content notes) so that it can be content tagged with <corpname> if needed. For subsequent mentions within sections, you can use UNC or UNC-Chapel Hill as appropriate. Do not use UNC-CH.

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